27/05/2013

How To Marry A Millionaire (1953)


Shot immediately after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with an extremely similar plot intended to further capitalise on the abiding mood of Monroemania, this prehistoric and utterly predictable sex comedy finds Marilyn and Betty Grable joining in Lauren Bacall's cynical scheme to nab a swish Manhattan apartment and turn it into a bear trap with which to ensnare wealthy suitors. With husband-hunting the only game in town, Bacall and her coven of room mates are desperate to make the trade up from gas station attendants to oil tycoons, having grown tired of stepping out with ordinary Joes unable to guarantee a secure future. The question of advancing their own careers (they're models, naturally) through hard work, bloody-minded ambition and rallying against glass ceilings never comes up, perhaps because these jaded women have long since accepted that the game of life is rigged. Perhaps it's foolish to hope for enlightened attitudes or sexual revolution in a conservative studio picture of this vintage, but producer-writer Nunnally Johnson's film seems particularly hard hearted, lacking any of the breezy, self-deprecating humour of its predecessor, its very premise soaked in vinegar. Bacall's performance hardly helps. She is simply too intelligent a presence for this sort of fluff and too stern, steely and calculating to believe as a dear friend of Monroe and Grable's dumb blondes.


Despite all that, there are at least two good jokes. One is this surprisingly post-modern exchange, which finds Bacall insisting to William Powell that she really could love an older man: "Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at old fella what's his name in The African Queen". The other is Monroe, playing short-sighted, finally daring to put on her glasses in front of a man (David Wayne) and wondering how she looks. "I've never seen anybody in my life that reminded me less of an old maid", he replies after a well-judged pause. Powell's stately Texas cattle baron, incidentally, is exactly the sort of female dream man that Rock Hudson would send up so expertly in Pillow Talk six years later. The film contains some attractive tourist shots of New York monuments and the snowy hills of Maine courtesy of Romanian director Jean Negulesco and an amusing character turn from Fred Clark as Waldo Brewster, an emasculated businessman bemoaning his plight as "the most married man in the United States". How To Marry A Millionaire's Hollywood premiere must also have been quite an evening. Otherwise, Grable's character is poorly defined, especially in relation to Monroe's, and the whole escapade reeks of commercial opportunism. 20th Century Fox were so keen to show off their new widescreen CinemaScope process that they nailed on a prelude featuring Alfred Newman conducting the studio orchestra in a five-minute performance of his own Gershwinesque composition 'Street Scene', which is nice enough but serves little purpose other than showcasing the wide framing and is typical of the film's marriage-of-convenience approach. Johnson apparently hammered together two old plays to form his script, The Greeks Had A Word For It (1930) by Zoe Adkins and Loco (1946) by Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert, and, quite frankly, both could have done with a dusting down first.

21/05/2013

To Catch A Thief (1955)


With Swiss jeweler Chopard recently suffering a $1m gem robbery at the Cannes Film Festival, what better time to revisit Alfred Hitchcock's pleasing Riviera cat burglar caper with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly? Grant stars as expat American John Robie, a retired gentleman thief and former French Resistance fighter now living in splendid isolation on the Côte d'Azur, having long since hung up his crepe soles and tool bag. When a spate of copy cat crimes strike the Hotel Carlton in Cannes, Robie finds himself the prime suspect and sets out to catch the real culprit and clear his good name, roping in British insurance agent H.H. Hughson (John Williams) for support. Robie soon runs into wealthy holidaymaker Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her exquisite but icy daughter Frances (Kelly), falling for the latter when she guesses his identity.

Hitchcock was dismissive about To Catch A Thief in 1967 in conversation with François Truffaut, whom he had first met along with Claude Chabrol while editing this film's rushes at Paramount's studio in Joinville, Paris, almost apologising for it as "lightweight". To Catch A Thief is certainly first and foremost an entertainment, its handsome leads a dream pairing, its Oscar-winning Technicolor cinematography from Robert Burks painting a sunny  travelogue while John Michael Hayes' script is well seasoned with innuendo and suggestive double entendres ("Leg or breast?" Grace asks, offering Cary cold chicken at a picnic lunch). Hitch is clearly amusing himself, delighting in interrupting romantic scenes with symbolic images of fireworks exploding over the harbour and placing a phallic rolled umbrella in Kelly's toying hands after her attempts to seduce Grant have been thwarted.


For all that, there's an undercurrent of Highsmithian menace rippling beneath the surface of this wrong man thriller and an unmistakable erotic charge to the relationship between Robie and Frances, she apparently fascinated by him explicitly because of his criminal past and the daring and danger he thus represents. This is a theme the director would explore in much deeper, darker, more Freudian terms a decade later with Marnie (1964). Like that film and many others in Hitchcock's oeuvre, we are again introduced to a dominant mother, although this is a rare instance in which that archetype is solely an instrument of good, Landis funny, relaxed and earthy as a merry widow with a taste for bourbon. Hayes' screenplay, adapting a novel by David Dodge, meanwhile also poses an interesting question about the nature of theft, with Robie provocatively challenging Hughson on whether or not lifting towels and soap from hotels, making liberal use of a corporate expense account or even taking out an insurance policy might not also be considered forms of stealing. Further shading comes from the sight of Grace Kelly speeding along coastal roads in the same part of the world were she would meet her tragic end as Princess of Monaco in 1982, a grim thought that inevitably now accompanies To Catch A Thief. A comic fantasy adventure of wealth and skulduggery that anticipates the James Bond series then, but hardly lightweight.

13/05/2013

Man Of Aran (1934)


Irish-American Robert J. Flaherty, often called the "father of the documentary", shot this amazing record of the lives of fishermen on the remote Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland using funds from Michael Balcon's Gainsborough Pictures. Flaherty had originally been an explorer and had once discovered an island of his own in Canada's Hudson Bay. Turning to film as a means of exploring his fascination with remote and exotic communities existing in harsh conditions (he thought of himself as a Thoreau figure: "I haven't much use for towns"), Flaherty's previous career highlight had been Nanook Of The North (1922), but it was Man Of Aran that proved his masterpiece, nabbing the "Mussolini Cup" at the second Venice Film Festival and a legion of admirers, from Orson Welles to Luchino Visconti.

Flaherty's Man Of Aran introduces us to the inhabitants of this barren trio of rocky outcrops and chronicles the daily hardships they face. These isles have no natural resources whatsoever, meaning the redoubtable rogues who live there even have to create their own artificial soil from rubble, sand and seaweed just to be able to plant potatoes. Equally, much of their time is consumed hunting down monstrous basking sharks in order to have enough blubber to boil for lamp oil. The Aran Islanders are nevertheless happy and Flaherty captures them about their business in no little style, creating a vivid impression of the violence of the waves, the bitter chill of the wind and their unrelenting but cheery struggle to survive. Not since J.M.W. Turner exhibited his first oil painting, Fishermen At Sea, in 1796 has the peril of depending on the whims of the ocean for a living been so vividly conveyed.



Although it has been criticised for fabrication (the family depicted were not really related and the premodern fishing practices shown had been abandoned half a century before), Man Of Aran remains rightly celebrated for its astonishing seafaring photography, a logistical triumph given the cumbersome and unwieldy nature of early film cameras. One far-sighted contemporary reviewer for the Sunday Express put it best when he wrote on April 29 1934: "This is a film which will influence directors all over the world. They will now perceive that there is drama in simplicity. One defiant face looking at the Atlantic after nearly meeting death can be a bigger thrill than hordes of tough guys retreating from the cops."

11/05/2013

Rome, Open City (1945)


For Rome, Open City, Roberto Rossellini took to the streets of the Italian capital just two months after it had been liberated by the Allies to capture the plight of real people living among the ruins. Shot hurriedly using scrabbled together scraps of grainy film stock, some of which had previously contained newsreel footage, and funded by a donation from a wealthy local countess and whatever the director could raise in the city's pawnshops, the result took the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1946 and remains a classic of early neo-realism. It's also an ode to human endurance and a testament to the innate strength of a united community. Rosselini's film, co-written by Sergio Amedei and one Federico Fellini, is more emotionally manipulative and melodramatic than some later examples of the genre and is primarily concerned with the women and children living under German occupation in 1944 and their struggle to protect their Resistance fighter menfolk and keep food on the table. Anna Magnani, one of the few professional performers among the cast, stars as one such everyday heroine, a widow and mother who becomes a martyr when she is gunned down in the road while hysterically attempting to intervene in the arrest of her fiancé by the Gestapo. Magnani gives a magnificent performance that stands as a fitting tribute to the real-life Roman housewife Teresa Gullace on whose tragic fate her strand of the story is based. Maria Michi is also impressive as a night club singer who inadvertently finds herself a collaborator when her simple desire to lead a normal life is cruelly exploited.


The true centre of the storm though is Catholic priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi, also channeling a real person, the partisan sympathiser Don Guiseppe Morosini), who uses his position to move with comparative impunity and offer help and consolation wherever he can. His execution by the sadistic Major Bergman (Harry Feist) in front of a crowd of praying orphans is as brutal a finale as you're likely to encounter in cinema. As for Bergman, if his casual cruelty weren't a damning enough indictment, the criticism he faces from his own subordinate, Captain Hartmann (Joop van Hulzen), who would rather drink himself to death than plant the seeds of hatred, certainly hits home. Rome, Open City was followed by Paisà (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948), making it the starting point for the director's second trilogy of the war, the prolific Rossellini having already completed The White Ship, A Pilot Returns and The Man With The Cross between 1941 and 1943 while deftly managing to dodge conscription with Il Duce's fascists.

01/05/2013

Judex (1963)

Georges Franju directed this supremely stylish revival of the French pulp series by Louis Feuillade about a mysterious moral avenger and master of disguise who dishes out vigilante justice to the powerful and corrupt. Preceded by a well-loved silent serial in 1916 shot by Feuillade himself, Franju's remake casts American magician Channing Pollock in the title role, a individual whose countenance is as stern as that of the buzzard mask he sports in the iconic still above. Judex, who usually favours a slouch hat and cloak, has his sights set on villainous banker Favraux (Michel Vitold), a cruel and avaricious blackmailer. Our hero harasses his mark with poison pen letters (a detail recalling Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau, 1943) before faking Favraux's death at a masked ball and kidnapping him. However, Judex's actions only prompt the latter's black-hearted mistress Diane (Francine Bergé) to rob the financier's estate, a plot that ultimately endangers the life of Favraux's gentle daughter Jacqueline  (Édith Scob, whom you might recognise from Franju's horrific Eyes Without A Face or indeed last year's Holy Motors). A convoluted mystery ensues, played with admirable seriousness by all concerned.


Franju was a master image-maker and Judex is filled with witty visual touches. Two women, one a cat burglar all in black and the other an acrobat in a white leotard, fight it out on a moonlit rooftop. The amiably doltish detective Concatin (Jaques Jouanneau) sports a deerstalker cap and chuckles over a well-worn copy of Fantômas, (another Feuillade-directed series) at his desk. A disguised nun lies stricken in the road, waiting to trick an ambulance driver into braking so that she can jack him at knife point. Excellent stuff, in other words. Perhaps the highlight though is the surreal costume party scene, which was inspired by the work of caricaturist Jean-Ignace-Isidore Gérard Grandville, who mocked bourgeois manners and mores with his 1829 book Les Metamorphoses Du Jour in which his fellow countrymen are depicted with the heads of beasts, fowl and grasshoppers for satirical purposes.

Judex is available on DVD from Eureka, whose Masters of Cinema release also includes Franju's later but similarly styled Nuits Rouges (1974), an inventive but terminally naff mystery concerning a criminal mastermind in a scarlet balaclava, brainwashed henchmen, a host of silly gadgets and the lost treasure of the Knights Templar.